Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations

May 17th. 1918.

My dear Admiral,

          Mails have been very irregular lately, without much advance warning, and in addition to this times have been pretty strenuous, and the final result is that I have not written you as much as I intended.

          In the first place Roys1 brought back some word from you explaining why you had not written to me recently. Let me therefore say very definitely, that although these letters I write to you are not official, they are on official subjects and they are not at all subject to reply except in case you have something you wish to say to me. I appreciate to a certain extent the enormous nature of the burden you carry and I would not like to add to it in the slightest degree by your feeling under any obligation to write to me at all except in case of official necessity.

          You have all doubtless been much interested in the attempts to block Zeebrugge and Ostend. While these operations have not been at all of a fundamental nature, they have had a very decided effect on the morale both of the army and navy over here.2

          The material result is that Zeebrugge is apparently blocked to the ingress and egress even of submarines, though the Mole is still used to shelter submarines during their operations.3

          The first attempt on Ostend failed completely. The two vessels intended for the channel went ashore some distance away. In the second attempt the VINDICITIVE never completely blocked the channel and since she was sunk she has been swept around parallel to the channel by the simple expedient of locking back the waters of the Bruges Canal at high tide and releasing it at low tide. It may be that further attempts will be made to block Ostend, but it is apparent that unless these operations are continued at both Ostend and Zeebrugge the channels cannot be kept permanently blocked. The Germans are trying to dredge out a passage into Zeebrugge but are being much interfered with by bombing when the weather permits.4

          There is some criticism of the expense in life that these operations have caused and some question as to whether the material results are worth this expense.5

          In addition to the operations against Flanders ports, the Admiralty is keeping up a continuous harassment of the enemy in the Bight and in the Skaggerack.6 Hardly a night passes of favorable weather that they do not plant mines in one or another of the channels the Germans are continuously attempting to keep open. The patrol recently established in the Fair Island passage has also harassed them considerably. There were two very promising attacks on submarines within the last few days and both of them may have been gotten. At all events it has forced half of them to go round the northern side.

          Of course the great hope of the future is the sufficient perfection of the listening devices to enable us to run down a submarine once we get within hearing of them.

          Six chasers have arrived in the Channel,and their commanding officers have been here for a couple of days doping out a hunting doctrine.7 Leigh and Brittain (commander of the AYLWIN)8 have had them working on chart problems with Carter9 (an expert submarine officer) as their opponent and as the result of these games they have developed a tentative doctrine which will enable them to operate against a submarine without requiring more than an occasional signal, and these will be given by wireless telephone.

          Without going into details, I may say that the doctrine so far developed is exceedingly ingenious. The chaser in the hunting lien that first hears the submarine automatically becomes leader and the movements of the other boats are controlled accordingly.

          I am very much impressed with the commanders of these six boats and they look husky and strong and fine and their enthusiasm leaves nothing to be desired. They are off today for the Channel and will proceed immediately on hunting expeditions. They will of course continuously modify their doctrine in the light of the experience they gain, and all this will be promptly transmitted to the chasers at Corfu.

          It was my intention to send three of the destroyers that are fitted with listening devices to Carfu to co-operate with the chasers in that area, but in view of the Department’s telegram I am holding them until I hear from the Department on this subject.10

          You may be assured that every effort will be made on this side to handle the destroyers as to bring the maximum war result. As you may imagine I am thoroughly alive to the necessity of protecting the troop transports. I am also alive to the necessity of keeping up the required flow of supplies to the army and to troops on the Western Front.11

          I do not think that there is any great danger to the troop transports. Of course it is wholly impossible for destroyers on this side to convoy out beyond a certain distance which is strictly limited by their oil capacity. As for any large submarines that may be outside of the reach of convoys from this side, I do not fear them particularly. This opinion is shared by all of the anti-submarine officers I know in the Admiralty.

          All of our experience shows that these large submarines are not dangerous to convoys, otherwise they would have been attacking during the past six months that they have been operating.

          It is well understood why they have not done so. It is on account of the extreme danger that such clumsy boats run in making attacks of this kind. This opinion is further confirmed by plenty of evidence that even the handier U boats and the still handier UB boats often let a convoy go by without attempting an attack.12

          Generally speaking, the submarine will not attack a well handled convoy that is kept in good formation. They will approach on the chance of finding a straggler. In a large convoy there are too frequently vessels that straggle, due principally to trouble with the steering gear. The constant zigzagging of merchant vessels has put upon the steering gear a strain that it was not designed to withstand.

          In reference to the operations of the large cruising submarines at a great distance from their bases, it is well to consider the intentions of the enemy. Undoubtedly the best hunting ground for submarines is what you might call the European Funnel, into which vessels from all over the world must come. In the English and Irish channels, and the lanes of commerce are the densest procession of ships. Here is where a submarine must operate if he wishes to do the greatest amount of damage to merchant shipping within the same space of time.

          From these considerations theconclusion is inevitable that the object of the enemy in sending a submarine far afield must be something in addition to the vessels that he can destroy in such distant fields.

          There is no doubt in our minds over here, that what he seeks to do is to produce a moral and political effect, and that as the result of these effects he can induce the Allies to disintegrate their anti-submarine forces.

          For example, if by sending one submarine to America to plant the few mines he can carry, or to sink the few ships that he can sink, he can through the influence of his presence upon public opinion, force our Government to keep a large number of destroyers on the other side or in any service not connected with the real anti-submarine campaign, he will have succeeded admirably in his objective.

          Of course I understand something about the effect of public opinion, but this public opinion must necessarily be an ignorant opinion viewed from the military standpoint. It would therefore seem that it was up to us to instruct this opinion so as to prevent the effect that the enemy wishes to produce. This should not be difficult as the question is one of marked simplicity.

          In connection with what I have been saying about the most advantageous field for the submarine to operate, I enclose herewith a copy of the chart showing the sinkings around the British Isles and in the Mediterranean in April 1917. The other chart shows the sinkings in April 1918.13

          You will note from these that the convoy system has practically defeated the submarine on the high seas. In the former chart note the mass of ships that were sunk to the westward of the line between Ireland and Spain, and also to the westward of the line between Ireland and Brest. Note that there are practically no sinkings west of the two lines just mentioned. This is a positive proof of the great efficiency of the convoy system. Nobody can blame a submarine for being unwilling to attack a convoy. The operation is a very dangerous one. It must look particularly dangerous for a submarine captain that looks at what must appear from the low position of the periscope a confused mass of ships.

          In the chart of April 1918 you will of course note that the sinkings are in inclosed waters. The reason of this is that when convoys arrive on a line about between Ireland and Brest they must be split up into two, three, four and five sections, thus diminishing the efficiency of the protection of each section. Also vessels assembling in certain ports for outgoing convoys must traverse these dangerous waters often unescorted. It is here that the damage is now being done.

          The above in order to show that the only hope of being able to decrease the destruction in these waters is the augmentation of destroyers for escort duty, and particularly the augmentation of destroyers for organization as hunting squadrons with our new listening devices.

          From the above I think it should be absolutely apparent that if we can have the services of additional destroyers, in combination with our chasers, we can defeat the submarine campaign absolutely, even if we entirely neglect all measures against submarines that are operating in distant seas. There is but one of these at present, and little prospect of being any more, at least for a considerable time.14

          Unfortunately, experience has shown that such chasers operating by themselves are not effective. The chasers are useful in order to extend what you might call the under water ears of the destroyer, but when the submarine has thus been located by sound, the destroyer with her high speed and large number of depth charges is necessary for the destruction of the submarine.

          Doubtless Germany hopes for much from her new class of large submarines, but if we can organize hunting squadrons with chasers and destroyers, we can be reasonably sure that neither of these vessels, nor any other submarines will get out through the North Sea. This, of course, assumes that the listening devices will be effective.

          I have been intending to ask you to excuse the moreor less disjointed and scrappy nature of these letters, but have always foregotten to do so. Therefore let me say that the pressure on my time and attention is such that I cannot afford the time to give much attention to such details. I just dictate the letters from a few notes that I make and let it go at that. I would not have you believe that I could not do a better stunt in this line if I had the necessary time.

          We had a conference on the subject of a memorandum which was drawn up by the military people of the Supreme War Council pointing out that from their point of view the United States should declare war against Turkey and Bulgaria. When this came before the Naval Council yesterday I took the stand that we naval people were not in possession of all of the information necessary to such a decision, because there doubtless are many considerations which are not purely military which govern our country and those of the allies in such matters.

          I therefore stated that in my opinion the Naval Council should confine itself to a statement as to whether or not from the naval point of view it would or would not be advantageous for the United States to be at war with Turkey and Bulgaria.

          A resolution to this effect was adopted. Of course it is quite clear that if we are to cooperate with the Allies in the Mediterranean our vessels may at any time be brought in contact with the forces of countries with which we are not at war. For example, if the Black Sea Fleet is to be on a fighting basis and both destroyers and submarines come out through the Dardanelles, there can be little doubt that if we are at peace with Turkey some of these vessels will fly the Turkish flag. That would be a condition of affairs manifestly undesirable.15

          I cabled the Department a day or so ago that the unfortunate situation between the Allies in the Mediterranean was likely to be cleared up through the appointment of an Admiralissimo. The antagonism between the French and the Italians, or rather the dislike of the Italians for the French, is such that it would be practically impossible for them to co-operate together. If they did do as I have grave doubts as to whether the co-operation would be efficient. Onc ecan therefore see why it is the proposal of Great Britain that Admiral Jellicoe be appointed Admirallissimo in the Mediterranean was immediately acceptable to Italy.16

          The First Lord17 used the expression that “Italy is delighted with the scheme”. He is now in Paris to talk the matter over with the French Government. Of course the rub will come between the French and the British. The French will doubtless be rather tenacious of the position that they have held in the Mediterranean and will not want to give it up, but I am in hopes that the pressure of the present crisis is such that they will give way.

          To refer again to the question of enemy submarines – which is never absent from my mind – I want to make it quite clear that it very rarely happens that the position of each submarine that comes out from the German bases is not known almost from day to day. This information is ascertained by cross wireless bearings and other means, but it is a fact that the exit and entry of each submarine is known and that her track is known with sufficient accuracy from the time she leaves port until she gets back.

          I tell you this so that you may have no apprehension that you will not receive warning of the approach of any submarines that may start for America. I think you will always be safe in assuming that there are no submarines there that you have not been warned about. I have no idea at all but that Germany will do more than she is now doing, that is, send an isolated submarine to the other side for the effect which they believe it will have on our people. To put the extreme case, if she should send all of her submarines to the other side, the anti-submarine campaign would at once in consequence be successful.

          Lieutenant Commander Roys on my staff, has just returned from the other side. I am afraid that his enthusiasm for the organization with which he works, which is of course a desirable thing, has led him into certain indiscretion. Those have not done any particular harm, but I wish to make it clear that it was all done on his own initiative. He tells me that he went to the President at the White House18 and asked for an interview with the President in order to present to the latter my respects and those of the Ambassador.19 He was wholly unauthorized to do this. I would not have presumed to ask for an interview for myself had I been there much less for one of my representatives. I am however, gratified with what Roys has told me of his conversation with the President and of the latter’s apparent opinion of the organization on this side.

          In addition to this, to my very considerable embarrassment Roys tells that he recommended to the Secretary that I be made an Admiral. I am sorry that he has done this, because it must necessarily be difficult to remove from the minds of anybody concerned that I did not ask or intimate that he do this. Let me there assure you that his action in this matter was wholly unauthorized. There is no necessity whatever of my being made an Admiral just so long as I am not superseded by somebody senior to me. Roys is a very good chap and a very useful man and I have not said anything to him about this and shall not do so, but I am telling you about it so that you may be in a position to contradict any false assumptions that may be made as to my attitude in this matter.

          We seem to be having pretty bad luck with the commanders of the LEVIATHAN.20 Telegrams that have been exchanged between London and the Department on this subject were based entirely upon what Admiral Wilson21 reported tome officially. I fancy that Bryan has been carrying out the same ideas which he put in force at Newport.22 He has the idea that the man at the top should run everything and trust little or nothing to his subordinates. Also the idea that severity makes for good discipline. I have always known him to be what is popularly called “the impossible class”. In order that you may be well informed as to this matter, I will quote a few paragraphs from a letter that was recently received by one of my staff from an officer of good reputation on board the LEVIATHAN:-

          “I am hoping that something can be done to relieve the intolerable situation which exists here at present. As you know, we few regulars have built the ship up from nothing at all into a pretty smooth running machine. The new captain began by belittling all that had been done on the ship but he has never yet suggested an improvement, or even inspected the ship or any drill. He is bitterly antagonistic to all of his officers and insults all of us, impugning our veracity and insulting our intelligence. My admiration for your Chief excited his cholere and he got off some derogatory remarks that excited my disgust. Were I the only one feeling depressed I would think the fault might be mine, but every head of department feels depressed and discouraged.

          “Any suggestion for the betterment of the ship and the personnel is met with suspicion and the direct or implied statement that the suggestion is no good; that we are no good; that some hidden selfish personal motive underlies the suggestion and that we are trying to undermine him.

          Almost all his work is left for others to do, yet he repeatedly tells us that we assume too much authority. I am very fond of the ship, for I have helped to build up the organization. The heads of departments work well together. The crew at large, is a splendid set of men and getting more efficient all the time. I have not yet seen the captain handle the ship and on our previous trip he ran into minefields so that a destroyer (Bob Berry’s) had to run alongside and megaphone him directions. [This was confirmed to me by Berry.]23

          He refused to give the chief any information as to when bells may be expected, with the result that the chief got an astern bell while in cruising combination and cracked his backing casing by not having a chance to warm up the backing turbine.”24

          In regard to the general situation, I must say that I am obliged to give it up. It is true that you can find almost no pessimistic attitude over here or in France. When I was in Paris on the 26th.April I did not find anybody who was not distinctly optimistic. The same holds in this country with the exception of the occasional pacifist and defeatist. I assume that those who know must have something upon which to base this attitude but to me the situation on the Western Front still appears very grave.25

          You must have been astonished at the Maurice incident.26 I have heard many Englishmen say they could not understand why, for an offence of that kind, a man should not have been shot next morning.

          There is one thing that is entirely apparent and that is that the dangerous nature of the crisis on the Western Front has apparently increased the d<e>termination of the British people to win the war at all hazards. We hear almost nothing now of labor troubles. As for the Irish question,27 really you can search me! It is a condition of mind which a man not subjected to Irish influences, which are largely dependent upon inter-Irish politics, cannot understand. The Irish set considerable store by the opinion and the sympathy of the Irish in America and it is not improbable that the recent expressions of this opinion may have its effect in pacifying the country. We have been in some anxiety lest the attempt to apply conscription might cause such widespread disorders that our air stations would be menaced.28 My recommendations that competent officers be sent out to take over these stations, at least for the present, were based upon the specific opinions received from Ireland as to the probable result of future agitation.29

Sunday, May 19th.

          In reference to my remarks above concerning the situation in the Mediterranean, Admiral Wemyss showed me two letters this morning from Sir Eric Geddes,30 who is now in Paris trying to straighten out the tangle in the Mediterranean. These were to the effect that while there was some discussion still going on with the French Admiralty, he believed that they would come to some definite conclusion. He is pointing out to the French that the idea of offering Admiral Jellicoe as an Admiralissimo is only in case the French and the Italians cannot come to an understanding as to the command of the section of the Mediterranean forces which will contain the Italian dreadnoughts. The British are only desirous that a practicable scheme for handling the naval strategy of the Mediterranean may be devised. If the French and Italians cannot settle their differences they propose Admiral Jellicoe as an Admiralissimo with the idea that he will control simply the strategy of the Mediterranean, that is, the disposition of the forces that may be rendered necessary by any future action taken by the enemy. The idea is that he shall not take what you might call the battle command of any particular section of the Mediterranean forces, but probably be stationed in Malta and have general charge of the disposition of the forces and issue general orders for their operations.

          One underlying idea is that the British make it clear that they would not propose any British Admiral for this service but only the great personality of Admiral Jellicoe – a man whose name is thoroughly well known to everybody in Europe. It is to be hoped that this will come out all right.31

          This morning I received a cablegram from Niblack stating that they had discovered German submarines had a base about twelve miles east of Gibrlatar, that three submarines had been located and that the presence of the chasers there had defeated an attack against Gibraltar.32 While this is recognized as an extraordinary report, and while it is not at all probably that there can be a real submarine base in Spanish territorial waters, still, I do not feel justified in sending all of the chasers through to Corfu, and have directed that two divisions remain therefor the present; I have telegraphed asking for specific details of the evidence upon which Niblack’s report is made, and for a precise definition of what he means by a submarine base, its exact location, and so forth.33

          This morning the reports are that three valuable vessels were torpedoed out of three separate convoys coming into the English Channel. This was done by five submarines that have been located there the past two days. This is the price we are paying for the additional employment of anti-submarine craft in escorting the increased number of convoys, of supply ships, troop ships and merchant vessels. It accentuates again the very urgent necessity of getting more destroyers to this side.

          In addition to the above, three vessels were torpedoed out of the same convoy in the Mediterranean and one vessel off the east coast of England. Of course we could not stand this rate of destruction. It would probably determine the war in favor of the Central Powers. It is hoped that this is only a lucky flurry on the part of the enemy. Unfortunately the British building program of destroyers is considerably behind the schedule, not counting the number of destroyers that have been lost in operations during the last few months.

Very sincerely yours,        

Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 49. Addressed below close: “Admiral W.S.Benson, U.S.Navy,/Chief of Naval Operations,/Navy Dept./Washington.D.C.”

Footnote 1: Lt. Cmdr. John H. Roys, Sims’ liaison officer with British Naval Intelligence.

Footnote 2: The initial raid took place on 23 April. The idea was to prevent German submarines, destroyers, and torpedo boats which were operating out of the inland Belgian port of Bruges from reaching the sea. These German vessels were sinking almost 25% of the ships being sunk off Britain and could only access the sea via a network of canals which emptied into the sea at the coastal ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend. A second goal was to raise the morale and reputation of the Royal Navy by taking offensive action. The reaction of the British press seems to indicate the latter goal was achieved. The Daily Mail, for example, reported on 24 April that the raid was “An Immortal Deed, Our High Command today believes in using our sea-power to strike and not merely to fend off blows.” Stephen Prince, The Blocking of Zeebrugge, Operation Z.O. 1918 (Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2010), 4-560.

Footnote 3: While the British acknowledged that smaller German U-boats and submarines were able to use the Zeebrugge and Ostend canals almost immediately, they contended that larger German submarines and destroyers were “locked” in Bruges until the end of May. The Germans maintained that the raid did not affect operations even for a day. However, the Germans waited until 4 May and after dredging, to send a “large” submarine to sea via Zeebrugge and until 14 May to send a flotilla of destroyers out, though it is possible the Germans were merely being cautious so as not to risk these larger, “more valuable” ships. Ibid., 58-9.

Footnote 4: The second raid on Ostend took place on 9-10 May. H.M.S. cruiser Vindictive, which had been part of the first raid, was hastily repaired and loaded with cement and was sent to try and block the entrance to the canal. However, ran aground on the eastern side of the canal and thus was not in position to use the tide to swing and block the channel. But the ship was hard aground and therefore had to be scuttled. Ibid., 54-55. Roger Keyes, who planned and commanded the raid was actually critical of the Royal Air Force for failing to follow up the raid with robust air attacks. Ibid., 59.

Footnote 5: The British commander reported total casualties of 637 including 176 killed, 412 wounded, and 49 missing. Ibid., 58. German casualties, in contrast, totaled 35. Ibid.

Footnote 6: These were entrances into the North Sea from the Baltic Sea. See: April 1918 Maps.

Footnote 7: For more on these submarine chasers and the training their commanders were undergoing, see: Nathan C. Twining to Josephus Daniels, 21 May 1918.

Footnote 8: Capt. Richard H. Leigh, an aide on Sims’ staff; Cmdr. David McD. Le Breton.

Footnote 9: Lt. Cmdr. Worrall R. Carter.

Footnote 11: See also: Sims to Lewis Bayly, 17 May 1918.

Footnote 12: Sims is contrasting the Deutschland-class cruising submarines with the smaller U-boats, of which there were a number of classes, and with the still smaller UB-boats, which were coastal torpedo attack boats. Uboat.net, Accessed on 7 May 1918, https://uboat.net/wwi/types/.

Footnote 13: These charts is no longer with this report.

Footnote 14: For more on the coming of U-151 to American waters, see: Sims to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 15 May 1918.

Footnote 15: Despite what Sims wrote here, the United States never declared war on either Bulgaria or the Ottoman Empire.

Footnote 16: For more on this plan, see: Sims to Charles R. Train, 16 May 1918.

Footnote 17: Sir Rosslyn Wemyss.

Footnote 18: President Woodrow Wilson.

Footnote 19: U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Walter Hines Page.

Footnote 20: Leviathan, the former German luxury liner Vaderland, was the United States’ largest troop transport ship.

Footnote 21: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson, Commander, United States Naval Forces Based in France.

Footnote 22: Capt. Henry F. Bryan. Before the war, Bryan attended the Naval War College. Naval Register, 1917: 10. Sims was president of the War College before his appointment to be liaison to Great Britain in March 1917. Morison, Admiral Sims: 334, 337-38.

Footnote 23: Cmdr. Robert L. Berry, who commanded the destroyer Manley.

Footnote 24: What is being said here is that the captain of Leviathan did not warn his engineer that he would be reversing direction and so caused damage to the ship’s machinery with an abrupt order to go from cruising, i.e., “drive,” to astern, i.e., “reverse.”

Footnote 25: Sims is referring to the German offensive of 1918.

Footnote 26: On the “Maurice incident,” see: Sims to Anne Hitchcock Sims, 10 May 1918.

Footnote 30: Geddes was First Lord of the Admiralty.

Footnote 31: The proposal to make Sir John R. Jellicoe an “Admiralissimo” in the Mediterranean theater was not accepted and inter-allied cooperation in that theater continued to suffer. Halpern, Naval War in the Mediterranean: 480-87.

Footnote 32: See: Niblack to Sims, 19 May 1918.

Footnote 33: See: Sims to Niblack, 19 May 1918. For Niblack's reply, see: Niblack to Sims, 21 May 1918.